Hans Hogrefe, Director of Policy and Advocacy for Refugees International, spoke of the ongoing refugee crisis and the political and bureaucratic sensationalism that blurs facts surrounding refugees. He stood facing the Washington Monument and a sea of orange shirts, marketed by the event to stand in solidarity with refugees.
“[There are] more than 20 million refugees around the world, and the public debates are dominated by voices that attack and demonize refugees in 30 second sound bites…these claims are designed to play on our baseless fears,” said Hogrefe.
“Refugees arriving at our shores have suffered indescribable atrocities. Refugees are human beings who have no other option than to cross international borders in search of safety and shelter because their own government couldn’t or wouldn’t protect them.”
Hogrefe referenced Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress. During WWII, a wave of anti-semitism swept across the U.S. and a fear of Jewish refugees was instilled into society; policy makers and ordinary citizens who refused shelter to those fleeing the Holocaust were on the wrong side of history. And history has a way of repeating itself.
Hogrefre was followed by Dr. John Kaler who spoke of his recent trip to Aleppo – one of the hardest hit areas in Syria from Turkish/Russian airstrikes in support of Bashar al-Assad, and attacks from separatist rebel groups who want to topple his regime. Both sides have demonstrated an indifference towards human suffering and civilian casualties. Kaler discussed how the last surviving pediatrician in Aleppo was recently killed.
The speakers were intertwined with emotional, artistic performances. The Iraqi-pop band UTNI sang about their desire for peace in the Arab world. And a chorus comprised of young refugees from nations in conflict like Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan awed the crowd with their moving performance. The children in Pihcintu delivered a spirited show, clapping and singing with soul about an obviously personal topic. Lifejackets lined the stage to symbolize the washed up jackets on the shores of Lesbos and the lives lost crossing the perilous Mediterranean Sea.
Sarah Browning followed with a moving spoken-word poem about fleeing violence – her mother was a refugee and gained admittance into America during WWII. As the co-founder of Split This Rock, an organization that promotes advocacy and social justice through poetry, she dazzled the crowd.
While Browning performed, spectators held signs in support saying “War creates refugees” – insinuating that western powers are responsible for the refugee crisis. Supporters argue that refugees wouldn’t be fleeing their home countries if the US and its allies hadn’t destabilized the Middle East from baseless wars. As a result of the Syrian Civil War, which the U.S. funded and provided weapons for, six million Syrians are internally displaced and another four million have fled to other countries.
Many speakers emphasized Americans’ instincts to dehumanize refugees because they’re unable to process the scale of human suffering. Westerners view refugees as a faceless group because there’s so many, but each one is a person; each refugee rejected for admittance is in peril. Around 400,000 civilians have been brutally killed in Syria since the start of its civil war; another 5,000 drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Americans wish to reject refugees out of baseless fears of terrorism, but the U.S. vetting process for refugees is lengthy and extensive. The vast majority who apply are rejected. The 10,000th Syrian refugee arrives in the U.S. this week; approximately fifty percent of those admitted have been under the age of 18. In contrast, Germany has welcomed over one million Syrian refugees. Most of them reached Europe via the Mediterranean Sea, landing in Greece after a treacherous journey. Volunteers await them on the shores.
The New Colossus, the famed sonnet inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, was read aloud to end the rally, emphasizing the nation’s “melting pot” identity; America is a land of immigrants. Emma Lazarus originally wrote the poem to welcome those arriving in the U.S. via boat through Ellis Island:
Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
“Let no one dim the brilliance of that golden door,” finished Hogrefe.